Topic for the Year 2008–2009:
“Food, Self, and Community:
Tradition and Transformation in Jewish and Christian Eating”

Co-Chairs: Moriah Hazani and Virginia Wayland (University of Pennsylvania)

Food is often a significant focus for the maintenance of group identities, cohesion of communities, and expression of cultural ideals and assumptions. Choices such as what one does (and does not) eat and with whom one shares meals can thus tell us much about individual and groups — as do choices to abstain from eating practices common in a society at large. Practices such as feasting, fasting, and food-related charity are frequently central to the expression of piety, community, and identity. Ritual meals, moreover, can serve as a nexus for the memorialization of the cherished past and the preservation of traditions about it. In addition, eating practices can function as a powerful tool for social differentiation, establishing and enacting the boundaries between various groups within an otherwise shared culture.

This year’s PSCO will explore our evidence for early Jewish and Christian eating practices in their shifting Hellenistic and Roman cultural contexts. In keeping with the focus on “Change” in this year’s Penn Humanities Forum, our discussions will center on the dynamic interplay between tradition and transformation. We will ask, on the one hand, how the encounter with “pagan” religions and philosophies may have shaped early Jewish and Christian interpretations of biblical dietary laws, attitudes towards animal sacrifice and meat-eating, and practices related to feasting and fasting. On the other hand, we will consider how the eating practices of Jews and Christians alike were transformed in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple and the cessation of Jewish (and later “pagan”) animal sacrifice. As such, we hope that our discussions throughout the 2008-2009 academic year will also resonate in interesting ways with the Department of Classical Studies’ interdisciplinary conference on “Meat: Killing, Consuming and Commodifying Animals” in May 2009.